An exclusive interview with OSHA chief Joe Dear

May 20, 2000
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Industrial Safety & Hygiene News Editor Dave Johnson met with OSHA chief Joe Dear in his Washington office in mid-September to discuss the next 12-18 months, what could be a pivotal time in the agency's history.

Given the anti-regulatory climate in Washington these days, what's your advice to our readers if they are asked by a company executive: Is OSHA anything to worry about in 1996?

First, the economics of injury and illness haven't changed, regardless of how Washington changes. This means the company should be concerned about workers' compensation rates, lost productivity, and other disruptions that come from injury and illness. It's good business to run a safe and healthy plant, and nothing going on in Washington will change that.

The second point is, there is a tremendous opportunity to change the relationship the company has with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, particularly for companies in states where we'll be developing Maine 200 type programs. The opportunity exists to work through noncompliance issues in a much more cooperative and less confrontational approach.

It's conceivable, depending on the outcome of the congressional budget decisions-- this becomes the third point-- that there would be less enforcement capacity by OSHA.

But there will still be consequences for companies that have serious health and safety problems which result in catastrophic or fatal injuries. Even if there's less proactive programmed inspection by OSHA there's still going to be enforcement and there's still going to be consequences for violators.

Conventional wisdom is that the Senate will be easier on OSHA in terms of budget cuts, standards restrictions, and reform bills than the House. What's your feeling?

I certainly hope there's a more considered approach to workplace safety and health issues in the Senate. But the House actions are so harsh and punitive and destructive to the protection of workers that it's not hard to appear to be more moderate in relation to that.

Now we're doing everything we can in reinvention and process improvement to use the resources we have more effectively. So I'm not going to say that every dollar they might cut might result in an equal reduction in program activity because we're improving the effectiveness of programs. But shrinking OSHA at a time when injury and illness rates are still extremely high is not going to be a net positive for the country as a whole. There will be more injuries and illnesses as a result.

Some people think OSHA will spend the next 12-18 months in a defensive posture putting out fires on Capitol Hill. They see your agenda as being only reactionary political fire fighting. What's your response?

It's more defensive this year than it was this time last year. But look at what we're working on: We have the action list of regulatory priorities which will be publicly released in October. We will probably be publishing the recordkeeping revisions soon. We're making good progress on the tuberculosis standard. We're going to have a major thrust to develop the safety and health program standard. I could go on and on with illustrations on how we're moving forward on the regulatory front.

OSHA reinvention offers what I believe is our best defense and our best offense. Increasing OSHA's effectiveness through partnerships or more strategic enforcement will have the impact of reducing injury and illness. So we'll push forward with the field office reinvention-- the Getting Results and Improving Performance project. This is a huge priority and ultimately will transform OSHA's culture.

There are other reinvention initiatives and process improvements that are occurring as well, such as the nationalization of the Maine 200 program. All of these are major steps forward and they are occurring in this environment.

We still hear from readers about OSHA field people who "just don't get it." That some field officers don't want Washington meddling in field affairs, and they're still inspecting and enforcing with that old OSHA mind-set. What's your response to readers who believe "The New OSHA" is not much more than a Washington concept?

I can't pretend and I'm not going to that I can change OSHA's culture with a couple of memorandums saying this is how we'd like people to work. It will take some time.

We do now have the specific examples of the seven field offices working in the new design, and we'll add five more by the end of the year. We will expand the Maine 200 program in a number of states. Employers in these areas are going to see specific commitments from OSHA, organized and managed initiatives.

One thing that will help the change process is positive reinforcement by employers who have encountered the new OSHA. I think that one of things that energizes the OSHA folks in the newly designed offices is the tremendous feedback they're getting. They're getting more done in a more positive manner than they ever expected. They're doing what they came to OSHA to do. There is also the evaluation criteria for the senior executive service that was changed and which we'll be using for the first time this fall. I think this will have an impact, given what those ratings may mean. The criteria now include impact, partnership, reinvention, improved service delivery, and results.

Last year we developed the customer service standards, and we're going to be looking at our performance in light of those standards.

But this is long-term serious work that doesn't lend itself well to Washington's heat over policy issues as opposed to the serious business of effective management of government programs. If there's a faster way to do this, please write me, let me know.

Are you concerned that reinvention is going to be misread outside of Washington? Some people are concerned that the reinvention ideas regarding penalty reductions go too far and send the wrong message. Are you concerned that the message may be: OSHA is easing up?

Yes, this is a concern. We had one enforcement case where it was suggested that we essentially develop a partnership with a company that had egregious violations of safety and health standards. As I tried to explain to the person who suggested this approach, these people had made the choice of traditional enforcement and that's what they were going to get. It was too late for them to decide they wanted to be partners.

I think this represents a misunderstanding of the thrust of the new OSHA initiative, which again is a balanced approach.

For companies that want a partnership, we can develop that. But there are going to be other circumstances where traditional enforcement is the only viable tool. Plus, it's important to understand that enforcement is what drives a lot of the desire for compliance assistance. The absence of a credible enforcement program will diminish the interest in compliance activities in business. It's not very different than what happens with speed limits if people know that troopers have turned off all the radar detectors.

People will drive faster. In the same way, if there is much less OSHA enforcement, employers will cut corners on compliance.

What I try to do is distinguish traditional enforcement from enforcement that doesn't appear to be directly related to serious hazards that affect worker health and safety. That has got to change, and we're watching closely what hazards are being cited. The number of poster citations and penalties is down close to zero, for example.

The number of egregious cases will get up to about 16 by the end of the fiscal year. Last year it was eight. OSHA's peak year was 30 egregious cases, but 20 of those were recordkeeping cases. There are no egregious recordkeeping cases in fiscal year 1995. This is enforcement of serious health and safety standards violations.

Another reason readers don't expect to see much out of OSHA in the next year is that 1996 is an election year, and the regulatory agencies historically slow down in election years. What can readers expect from OSHA?

Last Thursday the President and the Vice President addressed a number of agencies in the third annual reinventing government report. The President said he wants to see across the nation improved service delivery by organizations like OSHA. This tells me we're going to be working harder and doing more, rather than hunkering down and doing less. Like I said, the reinvention initiatives of OSHA are both our most important defense and our most important offense. So we need to keep moving on this.

What's an example of improved service delivery?

The risk manager of a fairly large regional company saying at a meeting in front of several hundred employers, "I never used to call OSHA before, but now I know I can call their office and ask questions. In fact, I call so much they recognize my voice."

This may be one of the real indications of culture change at OSHA. She's calling to say she has a problem, and the response from OSHA is not to send a compliance officer out and play "gotcha." It's "here's what you need to do."

Is it hard for OSHA field people to focus on reinvention at a time when they're worried about just holding onto their jobs?

It's tough to motivate them. But plenty of your readers work for companies that have been downsized and face tremendous market pressure and it's something you have to manage.

Again, when OSHA people are allowed to carry out activities which focus their energies on worker health and safety protection, there's tremendous reward and satisfaction in that. This is what we've got to focus on.

I'd like to say one thing to your readers. I'm concerned that a lot of people think some of the proposals for OSHA are so bad they can't happen. This is a very dangerous assumption to make.

I'm very concerned. People need to know there's been a step change in Washington, and that it is quite likely 25 years of progress will be wiped out in a couple of months as Congress considers OSHA's budget and gutting the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The professionals in this field that care about worker health and safety, care about their programs and their employers, had better not assume that just because it's so bad it sounds like it can't happen, that it won't happen. This is a time when, if a few good people don't speak up, the cause of worker safety and health will be set back more than at any time since it began at the beginning of this century.

Are you in for the duration? Some readers don't know how you're hanging in given that you've been beaten up politically for a year now. They wonder what are the odds you'll stay at OSHA through next year's election.

I believe in this work, and it's far from done. I'm beginning to see the results of work that was begun in '93 and '94_the office redesigns, the action list, efforts that are just beginning to bear fruit, and there's a lot more to come. I'm going to stick around and deliver as much of it as I can.

So you'll be here through 1996?

That's my plan.

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